Heart River Baseball: Young team with strong potential for upcoming season
Returning athletes boast experience and boosted confidence as batting strength sets Cougars apart from competition, pitching remains unproven.
DICKINSON — Last season, Heart River went through growing pains with only two seniors to lead a very young and inexperienced team, finishing last in the Region 8 standings. Being the sixth-seeded team in the regional tournament didn't stop them from putting on a competitive and stingy performance in their final outing at the tourney, losing to the No. 1 seeded Hazen in a one-run game.
They will be in a similar boat this year with only two upperclassmen, losing their only All-Region player in Terrence Dillinger. However, a key difference is found in returning young athletes after hoisting a Babe Ruth District trophy during summer ball. The experience garnered them confidence inside the batter's box and the savory taste of victory.
Heart River's coaching staff will rely on senior Austin Buckman and junior Jordan Koppinger to lead the younger players in the right direction to piece together a winning team.
“I am excited to see how we hit the ball. I was kind of touting that group of kids last year on how well they hit, and I expect that with a year passed. They are bigger, they are stronger, and they are more confident,” Kurt Silbernagel, Heart River head coach, said. “I am not worried about the leadership side of it. We just have to wait and see how the underclassmen respond this year."
Buckman has been a varsity athlete since seventh grade, and Silbernagel said that he has played like a senior since nearly his inception. He has proven himself to be crucial in the lineup, while his versatility on the field has made him a high IQ shortstop and a solid choice as a relief pitcher. The three-sport athlete said that he is ready to compete and show the region how ferocious the Cougars can be.
“I am the type of guy that just shows up and plays to the best of my capabilities… When I go up to the plate, I am not going up there to strike out, I’m going up there to hit the ball and do a little bit of damage,” Buckman said. “I am not worried about the experience. It is just going to come down to the effort that [the underclassmen] give. Going through that, we are just going to lead and show by example.”
“It’s good to have a coach on the field, and [Buckman] definitely fits that bill,” Silbernagel added.
Roughly nine of the returning sophomores and Koppinger are coming into the season with silverware after the Belfield / South Heart Knights won the Babe Ruth District 5 tourney last summer. During the tournament, the Knights demonstrated their ability to rally and to hold their opponents back, but the real test begins now.
Koppinger will be another relief pitcher for the team and will primarily be a third baseman. His long return back, after missing most of the second half of last season, will be greatly welcomed as another big hitter for the team.
“I love hitting. I love the exhilaration when you get a good hit, and knowing it’s a good hit because you hear the crowd cheering behind you,” Koppinger said. “I am not really nervous at all. Baseball is not really a rough sport and I have done tons of injury prevention to keep me off the injury list, so I am confident, and I am just ready to go out there and play baseball.”
The Cougars certainly have hitters, but unlike previous seasons, the pitching staff is limited in varsity experience. The good news is that they have strong options across all grade levels and each will have their opportunity to prove their spot on the mound.
Sophomores Luke Obrigewitch and Brayden Kastrow are most likely to start, as both had good performances during the Babe Ruth tournament. Buckman and Koppinger will have their time on the hill, as well as sophomores Kaden Zacher and Trystan Stevens, freshman Jordan Jung, and eighth-graders Connor Honeyman.
"I am not really worried about the bats," Silbernagel said. "Really, what it is going to boil down to is we are going to have to find pitchers who can throw it over the plate consistently ... Sometimes these kids get caught up trying to throw a little too much junk when all that is really necessary is throwing their fastball and developing a change up, and you can win games just by throwing it over the plate and giving your team a chance."
With strong leaders and potential within their ranks, the Cougars are almost out of the darkness. They will be looking to turn heads this season and make a push for a higher seed by the end of May.
Heart River's first four games will be on the road, beginning on April 6 in Watford City for a non-conference matchup.